Rachel Ferguson’s A Footman for the Peacock: a hatchet job

ferguson-1There is a good novel buried in this sprawling, self-indulgent fantasy of irony and class consciousness. Rachel Ferguson wrote A Footman for the Peacock (1940) right at the beginning of the Second World War: it was her eighth novel and fourteenth book. Comparing it to its immediate predecessor, Alas Poor Lady (1937), one can only assume that the frustration and gloom of impending war had addled her sense of proportion. Her earlier novel, the triumphant, magnificent The Brontes Went to Woolworths (1931) is now her most well-known novel due to the Virago reprint of 1988, and rightly so: it is a work of pure fantastical genius. Alas Poor Lady, also snapped up by the unerring eye of a successful reprint publisher, is one of the novels that epitomises Persephone Books’ project of rescuing unjustly neglected novels for their literary quality and the gifts of their social commentary. Both novels are written with control and sensitivity, matching Ferguson’s precise observations to her magical ability to conjure pathos out of the ludicrous by showing the power of human feelings over all social considerations.

Compared to these novels, A Footman for the Peacock fails embarrassingly. I haven’t always been too enthusiastic with what the Dean Street Press have kindly sent me to review (A Chelsea Concerto was the dazzling exception). My impression has been that either my taste in books is very different to their collective taste, or they are reprinting novels that other reprint houses are not bothering with for good reason. Of course, it could just be me. Earlier reviews of A Footman for the Peacock had me wondering if I had read the same book. But its publicity is also bizarrely at odds with what I actually read, so much so that I seriously considered whether their back cover blurb had been written by a marketing person who had been told about the book, but hadn’t read it for themselves. This is the first offender:

‘The peacock … Waiting? Listening? Guiding. No. Signalling.’

What utter, utter tosh. There is a peacock. It prowls the lawns of the English country mansion, Delaye, and keeps an eye on the Roundelay family and its servants. It attacks Angela, the younger Roundelay daughter, when she offers it half a hard-boiled egg, but the alert reader will already have spotted the reason for that when it occurs. The peacock has a close connection to the eighteenth-century family’s running footman Thomas Picocke, who died bloodily in the top attic bedroom, due to his murderously exhausting job. It waits, presumably; listens, possibly; but it does not guide, and it certainly does not signal. As for the succeeding line, ‘may be aiding the Nazi cause’, this interpretation comes from the original Furrowed Middlebrow review of this novel, which is a straightforward misreading. It’s undoubtedly useful in the blurb, to pull in readers attracted to a plot about Nazi avian espionage. The niche readership will be disappointed, but they’ll already have bought the book.

Other assertions in the blurb may be due to the Furrowed Middlebrow’s knowledge of British social and literary history. It says that the novel was ‘controversial when first published’: well, no, it wasn’t. It was peculiar, Margery Allingham gave it a ‘guarded’ review (not unusual for her), and Punch loved it. If there is any evidence to prove the ‘controversial’ tag (so useful for whipping up sales), Dean Street Press don’t prove it.

The next phrase mentions ‘a loathsome upper-crust family dodging wartime responsibility’. Yes, they’re upper-class; yes, they’re dodging war-time responsibility by resisting billeting of evacuees, but most novels of the war written before the Blitz will depict this. So are the Roundelays ‘loathsome?’ No, I don’t think they are. Ferguson spends the entire novel making us feel how dear and charming and nice these people are, as well as vague, eccentric and exceedingly old-fashioned. She creates people, and shows us their lives, makes them live with human preoccupations, tirednesses, aggravations and struggles, and then presents them in wartime, struggling to cope as everybody had to cope, in peculiarly individual ways. Not loathsome, no: just human. The blurb and I will have to disagree on this one.

Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s
Rachel Ferguson in the 1930s

Getting into Ferguson’s plot, the novel’s fantasy elements of the strange other-worldly village of Rohan, Angela’s shuddering sensitivity to the haunted room with the glass inscription, the mystery of Sue Privett’s relationship with the peacock, and the eighteenth-century mysteries of the running footman’s death, the sacking of Polly Privett and Marguerite Roundelay’s fatal self-exile to Revolutionary France: all these belong in a potentially excellent mystery novel that Ferguson never allowed herself to write. Instead, she clarted her plot with a slapped-on morass of witticisms, as if she were clearing out a hoard of old jokes, clever take-offs and satirical interjections (some are very good). She romps for pages and pages, sending-up high society and its ways, forgetting that she’s supposed to be writing a novel with a plot. Characters appear and then wither away, forgotten. Tag-ends of plot lines multiply as if seeded by an anxious editor, hoping to pull some of this farrago together. The chaos is frustrating, because there is so much here that could have been so good. But Ferguson decided (or perhaps just needed to get something published) to throw everything she had into the pot. It’s a mess.

The novel is ill-served by its Introduction, which is expected to cover all three Ferguson novels reprinted in the Furrowed Middlebrow series, and is presumably reprinted in all three. This approach is needlessly cheapskate, and fails the novels by only giving them half a page each. Why wasn’t Elizabeth Crawford given the space to do the job properly?

You’ll detect that my exasperation with a good novel wasted is exacerbated by the publishing decisions for this edition, and that this is not a happy review. Many of you will think this beside the point, or needlessly pernickety. But these things matter: if you’re going to do reprints, you should take them seriously as novels, not just sales opportunities, consider their merits objectively, and not fob readers off with material that is so much less than it could have been. I don’t say that A Footman for the Peacock should not have been reprinted, but I would only recommend it for Ferguson completists.

Tove Jansson and the Moomins

Jansson 1Today’s letter is J in the Why I Really Like This Book podcast recap, and today’s author is Tove Jansson, the Finnish-Swedish artist and writer who died in 2001. She is most famous in Britain (I don’t know about other countries) for her children’s books and cartoon strips about the Moomins, which started to appear in translation from the Finnish in the 1950s. The Moomins are creatures of the woods and forests who have adventures and eat pancakes. They look a little similar to the immortal French cartoon character Barbapapa, but they have huge noses, keep their shapes, and they live in the woods. It doesn’t sound like much, but the charm of the stories lies in their stripped-down dialogue, their spiky practicality and the perfect economy of how the tales are told. Jansson also wrote novels and stories for adults, and, a few years ago, two of these, The Summer Book and A Winter Book, were published in English. If you haven’t read any Scandinavian literature, or are not familiar with the darkness often found in the northern European cast of mind, these books may be a shock. They are delightful yet prickly in unexpected places. The Summer Book is about ageing, and exercising the right to be stroppy when you want to be. The Moomin books are about the joy of independent living where everyone does exactly what they want, but that you also have to take responsibility for that ‘exactly’.

Moomin 1I distinctly remember reading the Moomin books in primary school. I can picture my desk and the feeling of desperately trying to finish Moominland in Midwinter before the bell rang because I might not be allowed to take it home. I saved my pocket money and bought my own copies: Moominsummer Madness cost me 20p. Comet in Moominland meant I didn’t buy white chocolate mice that week, as it cost 25p. But these are not infantile children’s books: these are children’s books with the moral depth of those other, more famous ‘children’s’ books of the period by Tolkien and C S Lewis. Jansson – the illustrator and author – tackles the same questions of order and security as they did, in miniature. All three writers were working during the period of the Second World War and afterwards. All three had a strong interest in using the mythological culture of northern Europe in their fiction, but Jansson drew from the small gods and lesser spirits of her native Finland, whereas the two British men worked from the louder and loftier Norse and Icelandic Sagas. Some of the Moomin stories were made into animated films because you would never get a Hollywood actor to play Moomintroll.

Moomin 2Every Moomin book begins with a quest or a mystery. Jansson’s variant of the young hero figure who goes out to solve the mystery is Moomintroll, a creature with a white furry body, short arms, legs and a tail, and an enormous nose. He is thoughtful, brave, practical, often anxious, and very patient. He lives in Moominvalley with Moominmamma and Moominpappa, in a tall pointed house with a veranda that withstands natural catastrophes calmly. Different creatures come and go, into and out of the family, and Moominmamma cooks pancakes and makes beds for them all. She is profoundly domestic, devoted to her children and quite confident that everything they do will come out right. She is faithfulness personified. Moominpappa is a retired adventurer, and a poet: his early life is told in another book, The Exploits of Moominpappa, in which he sails to the island of the mysterious Hattifatteners to see their Midsummer dance in an atmosphere of burnt rubber and electrical crackles. There is a pointy-nosed creature called Sniff, in whom all teachers and parents will see the eternal small child: adventurous, greedy and completely self-centred. In Comet in Moominland we meet the Snork and his sister, the Snork maiden, who are close relatives of the Moomins, but change colour when affected by their emotions. Moomintroll and the Snork maiden are romantically attached. There are the miserable Hemulens, who all wear long dresses, male and female alike. There are unhappy and obstreperous Fillyjonks, who order people about and insist on being in charge. The teenage Mymble’s daughter and her wicked little sister, Little My, live with the Moomins. Little My is a miniature terror: she lives in a coffee cup, is nasty to everyone when she feels like it, and cuts up the wool in Moominmamma’s work basket.

Moomin 3There are no epic heroes in Jansson, but there is a wanderer, Snufkin, who is as enigmatic and magnetically attractive as Tolkien’s Aragorn, in the sense that we want to know so much more about him than we are told. There is no religious basis in Jansson’s stories, as there so clearly is in Lewis’s Narnia stories, but in times of danger the characters might invoke a rapid request to the Protector-of-all-Small-Beasts. As in Tolkien, there is a demon in the land of the Moomins, the Groke, but it is not huge and full of flame like the Balrog, but secret and miserable, and freezes the ground it sits upon. In Moominland Midwinter, the darkest and saddest of all these books, the Groke moves into Moominvalley, and Moomintroll, who has woken up accidentally from his usual winter hibernation, has to deal with the strange alternative life of the valley on his own. You’ll probably have begun to see that the Moomin stories and characters can be read as allegories of human life.

The characters all have freedom from responsibility, but also have a deep need for order and security. In Comet in Moominland, the family have to rush to Sniff’s cave by the beach to shelter from the comet that is about to crash into the earth, but Moominmamma insists on packing the entire kitchen, and bringing the seashells from around her rosebeds as well. Her unhurried conversation of list-making instructions, as Moominpappa frantically packs the wheelbarrow with provisions for the cave, is so close to the dialogue of Mrs Beaver in C S Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (published a few years later), when the children and the Beavers have to get away from the White Witch’s forces and all she talks about is not leaving her sewing machine behind, that it seems pretty clear that both Jansson and Lewis were using the short-sightedness of female domesticity to heighten the fictional stress. The Second World War wasn’t far away from the writing of both books: both family parties are evacuating from terrible danger or a terrible disaster. However, there is more to it: if Moominmamma and Mrs Beaver hadn’t insisted on packing so much food, and bedding, nobody would have been comfortable in their refuges. Practical details also matter.

The Groke and some Hattifatteners, knitted art on Deviant Art
The Groke and some Hattifatteners, knitted art on Deviant Art

There are dramas and episodes of daring adventure in all the Moomin novels. Comet in Moominland is probably the most spectacular, because as the comet approaches the earth, the streams and rivers dry up, and so does the sea. The travellers make stilts to walk across the sea bottom to get home from the observatory, and encounter an octopus in a sunken ship. Sniff’s greed for shiny things nearly gets him eaten by a giant lizard in a cleft of garnets. The Snork maiden is attacked by an Angostura bush and Moomintroll saves her in something rather like the tussle with Old Man Willow in The Lord of the Rings. But the need for order is continually struggling to emerge from these fantastical journeys, and is satirised gleefully. The Snork cannot do anything without having a committee meeting first, at which he always elects himself president and secretary. The two grumpy old men Hemulen are obsessive collectors, one of butterflies and the other of stamps, and are incapable of understanding the danger of the comet until it affects what they want to collect.

In Moominsummer Madness the need for order is nearly vanquished. The valley is hit by an earthquake and then a tsunami, and the Moomins and their friends are marooned in boats and on roofs. A deserted theatre floats by, and they jump aboard, to discover the release that make-believe and dressing-up bring. On dry land, Snukfin rebels against order by pulling up all the Strictly Forbidden signs in a park, and is rewarded by the arrival of 24 small children. Snufkin’s life so far has been a celebration of having no responsibility and no possessions, and now he has to feed and keep dry this classful of children. He moves into the Fillyjonk’s house, because she, Moomintroll and the Snork maiden have been put into prison for burning the pulled-up signs in her Midsummer bonfire. But the prison guard’s niece, a very shy little female Hemulen who crochets, lets them go and even does their punishment for them. She does like to feel that she’s doing something right.

The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945)

Comet in Moominland (1946)

Finn Family Moomintroll (1948)

The Exploits of Moominpappa (1950)

Moominsummer Madness (1954)

Moominland Midwinter (1957)

Tales from Moomin Valley (1962)

Moominpappa at Sea (1965)

Moominvalley in November (1967)

Jansson 2